Thursday, October 18, 2007

Food for Your Eyes | Pokhara Rendezvous Series 10

Source: Flickr

Where I was born, where I was raised.Where I keep all my yesterdays..........
Behold a host, arrayed in white, like thousand snow-clad mountains bright, with palms they stand. Who is this band, before the throne of light? -Hans A. Brorson
The journey begins here
Whatever doesn't kill me makes me strong...
There will always be a blue sky, a blue sky waiting tomorrow, full of hope....
The shades of blue

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ink and spit

In the week that Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, John Sutherland looks at past acceptance speeches.

In the Berkeley campus of the University of California there are, visitors are perplexed to find, parking spots marked "NL only": Nobel laureates, any brash interloper will discover. The American university at which I teach, Caltech, boasts five Nobelists on its teaching roster. It equates to five David Beckhams on the neighbouring LA Galaxy team.
The innocent pride accompanying these academic possessions demonstrates the status that the Nobel accolade bestows on individuals, on their employers and on the disciplines they serve. And sometimes (but not always) their countries. The Nobel is the prize of prizes. Or, as prizewinner Camilo José Cela observed, it is the highest dais human creativity can aspire to.

At Berkeley and Caltech the living laureates are, all of them, scientists or social scientists. The literature prize is typically awarded to writers with no, or no anchored, academic affiliation (although possibly Toni Morrison has enhanced parking privileges at Princeton where she has been a professor for many years).
There are other elements in the pedigree of the literature award that invest it with a unique character. One is the fact that the prize is given for a lifetime's achievement, but is in no sense a funereal, or end-of-life, monument. ("It's not going to be my tombstone," Saul Bellow declared. Nor was it.) None the less most winners go, within a decade or so, to their final reward. The youngest laureate (over a century when in almost every other area of competition, victors have become ever more youthful) remains Rudyard Kipling - 42 years old in 1907. He would survive for another 30 years.
As a general rule, no writer wins the Nobel without a more-than-lifetime's achievement behind them. Those lives have, in many cases, been difficult. The Nobel Committee has a sympathy towards authors who come to the dais worn out by honourable struggle. "Perhaps I have lived too long under dictatorships," mused the 73-year-old Imre Kertész. The 2002 laureate had elected to stay in his native Hungary, after the failure of the 1956 uprising, to watch "how an entire nation could be made to deny its ideals".
Linger awhile on that last word. Another uniqueness in the Nobel literature award hinges on the sole criterion imposed by the academy. Namely that their prize go to "the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency" (my stress). The original Swedish is "den som inom litteraturen har producerat det utmärktaste i idealisk riktning". Translation throws up two areas of ambiguity. Does "work" mean something equivalent to the German Gesamtwerk, or the French oeuvre - life's work? Or the Latin magnum opus - master-work? And need the "work" in question be un-equivocally literary? It manifestly was not in the case of Winston Churchill in 1953 (writer of one potboiling Ruritanian romance), or Bertrand Russell in 1950 (author of one inferior volume of detective stories). It was their respective efforts against fascism, and in the post-war peace movement, that earned them the world's premier literary award.
There has been also been keen debate in the English-speaking world as to how the key adjective should be glossed; in the original Swedish the word "idealisk" translates as either "idealistic" or "ideal".
If there is one motto that unites the laureates it is the Faustian "non serviam" or, to paraphrase, "I will not create in a condition of servitude." Hence the paradox that often the laureate bites not the Swedish hand that bestows the accolade (although Jean-Paul Sartre did in 1964) but the culture from which the writer sprang. It is, as the USSR found (with both Boris Pasternak and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn), sometimes uncomfortable to have nurtured a prizewinner.
Even a country such as Britain, proud of its centuries-long liberal heritage, may have squirmed when "its" 2005 prizewinner used the dais to describe the country that gave him birth and fostered his career as "a bleating little lamb", tagging "pathetically" behind the US into the Iraq quagmire, to plant not liberalism, but "a malignant growth" (the image was the more hard-hitting since, at the time, Pinter was recovering from cancer of the throat).
Even the famously neutral Swedish Academy can receive a teasing nip from the lectern. In 1997, for example, Dario Fo turned on his august donors to ask: "Dear members of the Academy, let's admit it, this time you've overdone it. I mean, come on, first you give the prize to a black man, then to a Jewish writer. Now you give it to a clown. What gives?"
Slyer, but equally subversive, was Günter Grass's choosing to offer a fantasia on the subject of his novel, The Rat, in which an animal, representing all the rodent-kind who have laid down their little lives in laboratories, is awarded a Nobel prize for "services to science". The wit with which the 1999 laureate did it counteracted the insolence. But the underlying "non serviam" is unmistakably there. "I mix ink with spit," as Grass put it. And, continuing the theme: "It is a fact of life that writers have always and with due consideration and great pleasure spat in the soup of the high and mighty." One trusts he restrained himself at the banquet that evening.
The performances offered by the speech givers have been as fascinatingly diverse as their works. Pinter offered fist-flailing political diatribe. JM Coetzee spun a fable on the Crusoe-like loneliness of the creative mind (complete with Robinson's parrot which, like Grass's rat, is an ironic image of the writer).
Morrison, also a connoisseur of discrimination and oppression, offered a beautifully composed allegory crystallising the wisdom of the slave, and the freedoms that can be aspired to even in that most degraded and disgusting of human conditions.
Kertész used the occasion for a profoundly moving description of the "nauseous" condition of the free-spirited writer under the totalitarian heel, concluding with the black comedy of reading the record of his own death in the Buchenwald concentration camp register (the most hideous and un-literary kind of book imaginable). "I died once, so I could live," he concluded, with grim relish. "Live or half live," that is, under communist tyranny for 40 years. Like Byron's Prisoner of Chillon, he recovered his freedom with a sigh - habituated for so long as he was to its opposite.
A number of writers have used the high dais to recall their childhoods. In a keenly evoked memory of his childhood on the Ulster/Eire border, Seamus Heaney recalled his search for "his" voice, listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home, and the "official idioms" of the British broadcaster, on the family radio. What combinations, what resistances, are required so that, in later life, his poetry can be honestly expressed?
VS Naipaul confided to his Stockholm listeners an exquisitely precise reminiscence of growing up, a migrant Indian in Trinidad, over the bones of the island's exterminated "aborigines". What could someone like himself, topped off with a British Oxbridge education, become other than a "mimic man"? And none the less, in his authorial prime, transcend mimicry to become a free voice?
Lost integrity of self, and the painful recovery of something to compensate for the loss, has been a recurrent theme among the laureates. Derek Walcott described the condition with a poet's sureness of touch and metaphor:
Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars.
Is the bestowal of the prize, from the Nordic outpost of world culture, another white scar on the African body? Is it what Wole Soyinka opprobriated in his speech as "racist condescension". Or is it soothing balm for history's injuries? Reparation even?
The vase is forever broken. Life is a "continuing fracturing", as Octavio Paz put it, having received the award, a "continuous expulsion from the present". It is the writer's task, and literature's highest achievement to recover a saving wholeness.
A majority of writers who have won the literature prize since 1980 have had their careers broken by exile and imprisonment, or have been sanctioned into silence in their native countries to be left, as Gao Xingjian puts it, with only "themselves" to write for. Internal readerships, like internal exile, are a fact of 20th-century tyranny. Even the limited circulation of the samizdat is often denied. But not to write, even in this extremity of creative loneliness, is - as Xingjian says - "suicide". He experienced it, survived it, and rose above the oppressor to win his prize.
Disputes over who should have won are, of course, inevitable. Accompanying them is a miasma of mythology, suspicion and (probably apocryphal) Nobel-lore. Did Joseph Conrad not get it because of the "dynamitard" villains in The Secret Agent? Did Graham Greene not get it because of the offensive depiction of the Swedish "safety-match king", Ivar Kreuger, in England Made Me? Would the British-born WH Auden (widely reported to be a frontrunner in 1971) have won had he not been American at the wrong time of his life - namely while the Vietnam war was coming to its bloody conclusion? Was Salman Rushdie out of contention in the early 1990s because it would have been too difficult to reward a writer whom two billion Muslims had been commanded to assassinate? Such gossipy imaginings add spice to every year's announcement. And they are, backhandedly, a tribute to the importance attached to the prize.
If there is one literary topic on which the literary prize winners agree, it is the paramount importance of their medium. "Language," said Naguib Mahfouz (in 1988 the first Islamic laureate) is "the real winner". And language, whatever its national origin, is what the writer is dedicated to purify, preserve, and refine. And, above all, to protect from those who, as Morrison says, would "molest" and "loot" it. Pinter assaulted those linguistic pimps and prostitutes, politicians, who misuse language "to keep thought at bay". As Kertész instructed:
Consider what happened to language in the 20th century, what became of words. I dare say that the first and most shocking discovery made by writers in our time was that language, in the form it came down to us, a legacy of some primordial culture, had simply become unsuitable to convey concepts and process that had been unambiguous and real. Think of Kafka, think of Orwell, in whose hands the old language simply disintegrated. It was as if they were turning round and round in an open fire, only to display its ashes afterwards, in which new and previously unknown patterns emerged.
One of the notable features of the period during which the Swedish Academy has (with the interruption of world war) awarded its literary prize is the growing force of literature to alter, or accelerate, world-historical events. The literary voice has never been more potent. Its language never more listened to. Heaney made the point astutely, and accurately, with a comparison of what brought down the Third Reich in 1945, and what brought down the USSR in 1989:
This century has witnessed the defeat of Nazism by force of arms; but the erosion of the Soviet regimes was caused, among other things, by the sheer persistence, beneath the imposed ideological conformity, of cultural values and psychic resistances of a kind that these stories and images enshrine.
By literature, that is. And yet (there is always a "yet") as Joseph Brodsky reminded us in his acceptance speech: "Lenin was literate, Stalin was literate, so was Hitler; as for Mao, he even wrote verse. What all these men had in common, though, was that their hit list was longer than their reading list." Literature's power, like dynamite, depends on those who use it. On "idealism", or the lack of it.

Winning words

Harold Pinter:Britain is a "bleating little lamb" tagging behind the US into Iraq.

Imre Kertész:Consider what became of words in the 20th century.

Naguib Mahfouz:"Language is the real winner".

Dario Fo:"Dear members of the Academy, this time you've overdone it. You give it to a clown".

Toni Morrison:The writer is dedicated to protect language from those who would "molest" and "loot" it.

Günter Grass:"Writers have always spat in the soup of the high and mighty".

Gao Xingjian:Not to write, even in the extremity of creative loneliness, is "suicide".

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Food for Your Eyes | Pokhara Rendezvous Series 9

Pokhreli blogger's retreat
Blue Green and White freshness
At the footsteps of Bindhyabasini
Anna and Fishtail
All Alone at Lake Side
Viewpoint Tower